Our great cities have a new wonder of late years. I mean those immense dry-goods stores which we see in Paris, London, New York, Vienna, Boston, Cincinnati, Chicago, in which are displayed under one roof almost all the things worn, or used for domestic purposes, by man, woman, or child.
What a splendid and cheering spectacle the interior presents on a fine, bright day! The counters a tossing sea of brilliant fabrics; crowds of ladies moving in all directions; the clerks, well-dressed and polite, exhibiting their goods; the cash-boys flying about with money in one hand and a bundle in the other; customers streaming in at every door; and customers passing out, with the satisfied air of people who have got what they want. It gives the visitor a cheerful idea of abundance to see such a provision of comfortable and pleasant things brought from every quarter of the globe.
An old dry-goods merchant of London, now nearly ninety, and long ago retired from business with a large fortune, has given his recollections of business in the good old times. There is a periodical, called the „Draper’s Magazine,” devoted to the dry-goods business, and it is in this that some months ago he told his story.
When he was a few months past thirteen, being stout and large for his age, he was placed in a London dry-goods store, as boy of all work. No wages were given him. At that time the clerks in stores usually boarded with their employer. On the first night of his service, when it was time to go to bed, he was shown a low, truckle bedstead, under the counter, made to pull out and push in. He did not have even this poor bed to himself, but shared it with another boy in the store. On getting up in the morning, instead of washing and dressing for the day, he was obliged to put on some old clothes, take down the shutters of the store, – which were so heavy he could hardly carry them, – then clean the brass signs and the outside of the shop windows, leaving the inside to be washed by the older clerks. When he had done this, he was allowed to go up stairs, wash himself, dress for the day, and to eat his breakfast. Then he took his place behind the counter.
We think it wrong for boys under fourteen to work ten hours a day. But in the stores of the olden time, both boys and men worked from fourteen to sixteen hours a day, and nothing was thought of it. This store, for example, was opened soon after eight in the morning, and the shutters were not put up till ten in the evening. There was much work to do after the store was closed; and the young men, in fact, were usually released from labor about a quarter past eleven. On Saturday nights the store closed at twelve o’clock, and it was not uncommon for the young men to be employed in putting away the goods until between two and three on Sunday morning.
„There used to be,” the old gentleman records, „a supper of hot beafsteaks and onions, and porter, which we boys used to relish immensely, and eat and drink a good deal more of both than was good for us.”
After such a week’s work one would think the clerks would have required rest on Sunday. But they did not get much. The store was open from eight until church time, which was then eleven o’clock; and this was one of the most profitable mornings of the week. The old gentleman explains why it was so. Almost all factories, shops, and stores were then kept open very late, and the last thing done in them was to pay wages, which was seldom accomplished until after midnight. Hence the apparent necessity for the Sunday morning’s business.
Another great evil mentioned by our chronicler grew out of this bad system of all work and no play. The clerks, released from business towards midnight, were accustomed to go to a tavern and spend part of the night in drinking and carousing; reeling home at a late hour, much the worse for drink, and unfit for business in the morning until they had taken another glass. All day the clerks were in the habit of slipping out without their hats to the nearest tap-room for beer.
Nor was the system very different in New York. An aged book-keeper, to whom I gave an outline of the old gentleman’s narrative, informs me that forty years ago the clerks, as a rule, were detained till very late in the evening, and often went from the store straight to a drinking-house.
Now let us see how it fared with the public who depended upon these stores for their dry-goods. From our old gentleman’s account it would seem that every transaction was a sort of battle between the buyer and seller to see which should cheat the other. On the first day of his attendance he witnessed a specimen of the mode in which a dexterous clerk could sell an article to a lady which she did not want. An unskillful clerk had displayed too suddenly the entire stock of the goods of which she was in search; upon which she rose to leave, saying that there was nothing she liked. A more experienced salesman then stepped up.
„Walk this way, madam, if you please, and I will show you something entirely different, with which I am sure you will be quite delighted.”
He took her to the other end of the store, and then going back to the pile which she had just rejected, snatched up several pieces, and sold her one of them almost immediately. Customers, the old merchant says, were often bullied into buying things they did not want.
„Many a half-frightened girl,” he remarks, „have I seen go out of the shop, the tears welling up into her eyes, and saying, ‚I am sure I shall never like it:’ some shawl or dress having been forced upon her contrary to her taste or judgment.”
The new clerk, although by nature a very honest young fellow, soon became expert in all the tricks of the trade. It was the custom then for employers to allow clerks a reward for selling things that were particularly unsalable, or which required some special skill or impudence in the seller. For example, they kept on hand a great supply of what they were pleased to call „remnants,” which were supposed to be sold very cheap; and as the public of that day had a passion for remnants, the master of the shop took care to have them made in sufficient numbers. There were heaps of remnants of linen, and it so happened that the remnants were exactly long enough for a shirt, or some other garment. Any clerk who could push off one of these remnants upon a customer was allowed a penny or twopence as a reward for his talent; and there were certain costly articles, such as shawls and silks of unsalable patterns, upon which there was a premium of several shillings for selling.
There was one frightfully ugly shawl which had hung fire so long that the master of the shop offered a reward of eight shillings (two dollars) to any one who should sell it at the full price; which was twenty dollars. Our lad covered himself with glory one morning, by selling this horrid old thing. A sailor came in to buy a satin scarf for a present. The boy saw his chance.
„As you want something for a present,” said he to the sailor, „would you not like to give something really useful and valuable that would last for years?”
In three minutes the sailor was walking out of the store, happy enough, with the shawl under his arm, and the sharp youth was depositing the price thereof in the money-drawer. Very soon he had an opportunity of assisting to gull the public on a great scale. His employer bought out the stock of an old-fashioned dry-goods store in another part of the town for a small sum; upon which he determined to have a grand „selling off.” To this end he filled the old shop with all his old, faded, unsalable goods, besides looking around among the wholesale houses and picking up several cart-loads of cheap lots, more or less damaged.
The whole town was flooded with bills announcing this selling off of the old established store, at which many goods could be obtained at less than half the original cost. As this was then a comparatively new trick the public were deceived by it, and it had the most astonishing success. The selling off lasted several weeks, the supply of goods being kept up by daily purchases.
Our junior clerk was an apt learner in deception and trickery. Shortly after this experiment upon the public credulity, a careless boy lighting the lamps in the window (for this was before the introduction of gas) set some netting on fire, causing a damage of a few shillings, the fire being almost instantly extinguished. As business had been a little dull, the junior clerk conceived the idea of turning the conflagration to account. Going up to his employer, and pointing to the singed articles, he said to him: –
„Why not have a selling off here, and clear out all the stock damaged by fire?”
The master laughed at the enormity of the joke, but instantly adopted the suggestion, and in the course of a day or two, flaming posters announced the awful disaster and the sale. In preparing for this event, the clerks applied lighted paper to the edges of whole stacks of goods, slightly discolored the tops of stockings, and in fact, they singed to such an extent as almost to cause a real conflagration. During these night operations a great deal of beer was consumed, and the whole effect of the manoeuvre was injurious and demoralizing to every clerk in the store.
This sale also was ridiculously successful. A mob surrounded the doors before they were opened, and to keep up the excitement some low-priced goods were ostentatiously sold much below cost. Such was the rush of customers that at noon the young men were exhausted by the labor of selling; the counters were a mere litter of tumbled dry-goods; and the shop had to be closed for a while for rest and putting things in order. To keep up the excitement, the master and his favorite junior clerk rode about London in hackney coaches, in search of any cheap lots that would answer their purpose.
In the course of time, this clerk, who was at heart an honest, well-principled fellow, grew ashamed of all this trickery and fraud, and when at length he set up in business for himself, he adopted the principle of „one price and no abatement.” He dealt honorably with all his customers, and thus founded one of the great dry-goods houses of London.
Two things saved him: first, he loathed drinking and debauchery; secondly, he was in the habit of reading.
The building up of the huge establishments, to which some persons object, has nearly put an end to the old system of guzzling, cheating, and lying. The clerks in these great stores go to business at eight o’clock in the morning, and leave at six in the evening, with an interval for dinner. They work all day in a clean and pleasant place, and they are neither required or allowed to lie or cheat. A very large establishment must be conducted honestly, or it cannot long go on. Its very largeness compels an adherence to truth and fact.